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The Uni-Files - what you didn't know... Archive

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

December 17, 2008

Is teaching English at a Japanese university a cushy job?

I know the image. We have only a handful of contact hours (or ‘koma’) per week. We often get our own offices, decent budgets for research, and nobody is checking to see when we punched the clock in our out, in fact there is no clock at all. Sounds good, doesn’t it- and that’s even without mentioning the professors’ Jacuzzi, the helicopter transportation, the Terence Conran-designed office furniture, and the kinds of salaries that investment bankers would kill for.

I hope you know I’m kidding about the last bit but I’m serious that when I say that university teaching has its obvious perks, it might not be the Life of Riley that some seem to imagine. You may be aware of the difficulty of securing long-time status at a university in Japan, so job security is often an issue (more on that in this blog in the near future) but let’s assume for the moment that you have a reasonably secure job at a Japanese university. With only six 90-minute classes a week what could possibly make it difficult? OK- I’m not going to pretend that it is as physically taxing and teaching children or as intensive as 20 classes at a JHS per week, and I know that teachers at other levels face some of the items listed below, but regardless, what follows is a point-by-point summary of what you might NOT have known about a university teacher’s duties:

1. Your time off from class is not really a ‘time off’:
I hate it when people (including students and fellow teachers) assume that if you are not in class then you have no other duties and are probably just watching South Park re-runs on Youtube (or writing blogs- ahem). Wrong. There is class prep. There is marking. Materials making (both pedagogical and promotional). Student consultation, orientation and extracurricular events. Meetings. Often endless, pointless meetings (possibly designed so that people DON’T watch South Park re-runs when not in class). Of course this is true for most full-time teachers at any level. But at universities…

2. You are supposed to be PRODUCTIVE with that free time:
Every year you have to provide a list of publications for the past year that are then rated. Presentations must be listed and will then be rated. After all, you are expected to be a researcher. Active involvement, including leadership, in professional societies and organizations is crucial (you are expected to be a big face in the community), not to mention active collaboration and liaison with those in other universities. All these things go into a rating system. If you are producing nothing but your grades at the end of the semester it will not look good when contract renewal time comes up (this will also, by the way, be the topic of a future blog entry). And you don’t just teach programs, you are usually called on to develop and maintain them. But at least these are things that you can choose and have some control over but you can’t really control…

3. Participation in committees:
Some committees seem to have been made up purely for the purpose of having a committee but you still have to produce. An ‘International Affairs’ committee will have to produce reports and newsletters. Various overseeing and organizing committees have to produce reports. Entrance exam committees… well, you know. International exchange, liaison and other special programs will often take up the dinner hours or weekends. And this is only the tip of the iceberg because if you are a native English speaker you will also be…

4. A de facto English secretary:
I know that most NS teachers at every level get ‘help’ requests from students, teachers and administration all but I think I’m safe in saying that it reaches new heights at the university level. The administration needs its English translations (which can often be very technical, opaque, or arcane) to be picture perfect. There are hundreds of researchers at different departments who are expected to publish outside Japan and who see an NS teacher as a handy resource. And you are expected to have seminars, one-to-one consultations and other extra-classroom connections with your students (grad student thesis guidance being one).

5. Song and dance:
Many teachers at all levels have to participate in promotion and recruitment for their particular schools but there is one item that is more or less unique to universities. That is fundraising through grants. Over the past decade, even national universities have been weaned off the public teat and have to engage in raising funds by producing and promoting programs that can win grants and awards. This includes the infamous kaken-hi research grants which involve a monstrously bureaucratic application and follow-up reports.

So, it university teaching a piece of cake? No. Would I trade it for another position at another level of teaching? No. Would it be easy for a person like me to slide into a position teaching children and think “Wow! This is a breeze!”? No. But more on that in the next entry.

Mike G.

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January 30, 2009

Notes and anecdotes from the end of the second term…

A few things that I’ve noticed on campus and in the classroom in the past few weeks…

1. Choral repetition- "Now THAT’S English"…

OK, we all know that choral repetition is not the most efficient way to learn a language. This lingering legacy of the audio-lingual method is widely-regarded as a questionable methodology that looks particularly outdated in a university classroom. But I confess that I do use it every once in a while, usually to try to drill in just that bit more deeply some pattern or pronunciation issue. But it is not- and I repeat NOT- the focus, or main teaching method, used in my classes. Hey, I’m just as progressive and use as many of the new millenium methods as the next TESOLer.

What I do find interesting though is the reaction of the students to these peripheral and very occasional choral repetition bits. Suddenly there’s this rush of energy, a sense of involvement, an air of “Ok, now we’re doing some REAL English, dammit!”. With the more ‘methodologically-correct’ tasks I get varying student reactions, but with choral repetition? “Now that’s an English class!”.

2. The Center Shiken follies…

Yes, we are one of the universities that host this yearly flagellation session and, yes, it is always a spectacle to behold. A good chunk of the campus is sealed off with officials wearing black and yellow ‘STAFF’ jackets scooting around with frightening sense of purpose and efficiency, like a SWAT team before a visit by the President, making sure that all security is in place. All classes and events the day before the test are cancelled in order to prepare. Current students can’t get near the testing building, much like the common riff-raff not being able to enter the holy of holies in an ancient temple, less they defile it or, in some unfathomable way, compromise its purity.

The invigilating procedures and protocols (I escaped that duty this year) run to 60 plus pages in print, including advice on what to do if an examinee faints, claims sickness, gives birth, is kidnapped by aliens etc. It terms of tension, the whole process makes the guard stations at Panmunjom feel like a Caribbean limbo party. And did you know that there are back-up invigilators waiting in the wings just in case a 1st-stringer goes down? It’s true! Bench invigilator- now there’s a calling!

Ultimately, I feel really sorry for the examinees. The head invigilator increases the tension in the air even further by making regularly-timed declarations such as, “The biology examination of the 2009 Center University Placement Examination will begin in precisely three minutes and twenty seconds”, with all the official pomp and foreboding solemnity of a North Korean newscaster. In this edgy waiting period I recalled how students fumbled nervously with their pens and other on-desk apparatus. One poor sap spent the last five minutes of the build-up arranging and then re-arranging his seven regulation pencils in strict order according to size at his pre-determined Geometrical Spot of Most Convenience.

At least, unlike the second-stage entrance exams, there aren’t huddled groups of expectant-looking parents milling about outside and bowing more deeply to you than anyone ever has before while you pass by on your way to the john. The Center test kids usually come in chartered buses, waved through the blockades set up at the university entrance by attendants with fluorescent batons (Attica State comes to mind). I bet there are even back-up baton waving parking attendants somewhere in the wings too- just in case.

3. Anketos (class questionnaires)…

Pretty much every tertiary institution dishes out some kind of anketo as a matter of course at this time of year, usually in order to meet standards of quality control (which can affect funding). Personally, I’m not a fan of anketo. No, I’m not afraid of negative comments from the students. My ‘scores’ are just fine. In fact, just about every teacher I’ve ever met has thought that their anketo results justified whatever they were doing in the classroom (students will give most teachers a run of 4s or 5s). I hardly even look at the results anymore.

And that’s the problem. The results are entirely expected. After twenty years in the game I have an ingrained sense of what I’m doing well or not doing well in the classroom that is completely independent of what students may comment on. Call me arrogant (go ahead, I dare ya!), but I simply think students are not in a position to make certain judgements. OK, I admit though that it may give them at least a sense of 'having their say', but c'mon, do you think Sir Alex Ferguson would ask his players to rate his coaching performance with the hope that he might learn something constructive about his coaching methods from them?

Even when I’ve asked students to pointedly address a specific issue in the comments section of the anketo (“Am I using too much Japanese in this class?”), the result will be the predictable Goldilocks and the Three Bears mish-mash: one-third say too much, one-third too little, one third just right.

Of course, good anketo don’t focus so much on the teacher as they do the course, the students’ self-reflection, the learning environment, materials, whole curriculum etc. But nonetheless, the anketo ratings that students give will reflect whatever activity you did in this, or the previous, class. So, if the class prior to the anketo was a Christmas party where you gave a Christmas quiz while wearing a Santa costume, the anketo results will duly prove your 'worth' as a teacher. On the other hand, a pop quiz with some strict follow-up comments and practice would lower the anketo ratings, even if that lesson is methodologically stellar and even if all the previous lessons had been worthy.

Guess what I did in my anketo class this year?

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March 03, 2009

A Day in the Life: The (Not So) Off-Season at the Uni

A lot of people, both in the university and outside, think that once the regular classes have stopped that I am on holiday. Or if not actually lounging at a poolside in Phuket, then I must be at least out on the golf course working on my fairway woods.

Most of you who teach full-time at public schools (Miyazaki U. is a national university) at any level know the correct response to this, which is: HAHAHAHAHAHA! In fact, unlike the so-called off-season, the days in which I am simply teaching classes, marking papers, or preparing lessons are in many ways the easiest in the school year.

If you want to know why, cue the violins, because here is what happens in a typical day (and this was an actual day) in mid-February, yes after all classes and English exams have finished. It’s a pleasant morning so I walk (about 15 minutes door-to-door) and reach my room at 8:35.

1. When I get to work I see that my new printer has arrived. I manage to set it up without any glitches or special problems. Getting rid of the mounds of garbage this creates is another matter.

2. My first ‘zatsuyou’ (busy work, officialdom) of the day arrives. I have to complete a document to get my newborn daughter on my work insurance. I use my inkan four times for the document. One part is problematic, the section on choosing a ‘setai nushi’ (head of household) since this affects taxes and also because elsewhere my wife and I are considered to be dual heads of household. I call her at home to discuss what to do. My name eventually goes in the slot and I hand the papers in.

3. I put in an order for a set of books I want. All the information, ISBN numbers and so on, have to be entered correctly by yours truly.

4. There are two official university emails in my box. Not only are they in Japanese (duh!) but the Japanese is inevitably written in the densest possible style, the equivalent of something like, “It has come to our attention that your good selves, privy to the pre-arrangements that have heretofore been noted…”. I scan once for gist (one is about re-examinations and the other about room arrangements and procedures for entrance exams) but need to consult the online translator and/or on desk dictionary to understand it completely. The point of one of the emails still eludes me so I ask the secretary, but even she seems unsure as to what the uptake is supposed to be. Eventually, I can make out that I am expected to go to a place deep in the bowels of the university’s password-coded system and enter a “same as last year” response. Navigating this labyrinth takes time and it seems that each branch has a different password, so this simple act ends up taking far more time than going downstairs to the academic affairs office and saying “Same as last year”. But of course this new automated is more (cough) efficient (cough).

5. A student has come to my office. I failed him because he was absent from class over and above the limit of allowed absences. He asks me why he failed and I tell him. He lingers and starts asking which days he was absent. I show him the form. He claims that I made a mistake on one of the entries, that he had just been late. Yeah. Like 45 minutes late. After pleading, looking contrite and suddenly deciding that English was very important indeed, I tell him that if he has a problem with this or wants to appeal, as is his right, that there is an ombudsman. He doesn’t take up the offer and finally goes.

6. I have a speech to make in about 10 days at a university-sponsored international symposium in a hotel downtown. The slides are made but need some fixing. I also add and subtract bits of text. Tailor-work basically.

7. The proposed itinerary for a business trip to Malaysia in June has to be changed because the airline is changing the schedule. I put in a request for a change of the departure date and book an extra day at the hotel.

8. A doctor who is an ex-student (the hospital is attached to the university) appears and asks for help. He is doing some research involving…oh I don’t know, place some impenetrable scientific jargon here…. And needs to know if his proposed email response to an American researcher is appropriate. Fortunately, it is better than most such compositions I receive and requires only minor literary surgery.

9. I’m expecting the final check for my article (monthly) in The Daily Yomiuri (English language edition) to come soon but last night I was tossing and turning a bit in bed because I wanted to re-phrase a few sections and cut and paste a point or two. The basic article is on my work desk computer so I make the adjustments now.

10. The department secretary has just received email from two doctors in Thailand who will be coming for an intensive, advanced special program next week. These emails involve questions about budgets and money protocol. Before I can help her respond appropriately I have to clarify the terminology and protocols myself. This takes a little more time that you might imagine.

11. Back to my desk. I have to put in an abstract and registration form for the ETA-ROC language teaching conference in Taiwan this November. My colleague and I have lined up about 6 conferences for the upcoming year and we have sent four applications out so far. The form is online but since each conference has a different theme and has different abstract-writing requirements I have to adjust the tone and wording of the (pre-written template) abstract accordingly. I send it after duly filling all the categories but an email arrives back about 40 minutes later stating that I have not correctly filled in all the slots and to do so and re-send it. I scrutinize the form trying to see what I have missed, as there are none of the usual asterisks to indicate required fields and the like. I assume it must be the “Chinese name” section that I’m falling short on. I write my name in Katakana and send it again.

12. I get a call from the academic affairs section about which English teacher was responsible for putting in the grades of some 3rd year transfer students. There is a new system for these ‘henyuu-sei’ and someone (not me though) had failed to enter them.

13. Completed anketo ratings arrive by regular mail from a nearby university that I teach part-time at. Unfortunately, they ask you to write a comment back to them (required field!) regarding how you will respond to the anketo results so that you will be the best teacher you can be! I honestly can’t think of much to say, but I scrawl something about improving communication with students about expectations and re-send it by regular mail.

14. There is a telephoned question from the entrance exam center about a potential problem on one of the tests and I am required to visit in person (it is on the adjoining campus). I go and the problem, which was the most incredible precaution you can imagine, is immediately and simply resolved.

15. A 62 page ‘kairanban’ (circular) comes by. I give the topics a cursory glance but it is completely full with items like, “Pre-arrangments regarding the reconstruction of parking lot C” and the like. I sign it and pass it on. So does everyone. They could write, “You will all be fired tomorrow” in there and no one would ever notice.

16. Next there is a scheduled meeting regarding the schedule arrangements for the visiting contingents from Thailand the U.S. Everything from meal locations, sightseeing companions, airport pick up, to relaxation room requirements is discussed- more slowly and indecisively than I would like. I volunteer for some of the ‘kakari’ (chores). The meeting is, of course, held in Japanese and is, as usual, much longer than it needs to be, as if we are just waiting for someone to ask momentous questions like whether the teacher’s refreshment area should include low-calorie sweetener as well as regular sugar.

17. After the meeting, the English Dept. Professor (I’m a mere “Associate Prof.”) asks me to contact and push a colleague in the Agriculture faculty about getting some articles for our “International Newsletter” submitted in time, as he has been dragging his feet. I write the email in Japanese, which means that I check it carefully before sending so that I don’t look like a total Nihongo doofus.

18. The budgeting department for an upcoming business trip to Seoul needs information about the location of the university in Korea that I’ll be visiting (I find it via Google and hit the print button) as well as an official “mitsumori-sho” (price estimate) from the travel agent. I call him and get it faxed in later in the day.

19. There is a small problem with spam on the ETJ list (ETJ Life-in-Japan) that I moderate. I check into it a bit more through Yahoo groups and see a pattern of spamming from two dubious, and very similar, sources. I remove them from the list.

20. Last thing. We need to clarify the weighting of different questions on the entrance exams and make copies to give to all the markers. I take this on. Balancing the value of all the items to reach the set total of 300 is a delicate task but, hey, I’m a professional.

Oh, I could go on with some of the smaller, 10 to 30 second, tasks that took place that day, but you get the picture. No, there are no Pina Coladas to sip under the palm trees or nubile native girls offering me a massage. Finally, at 6:15 I pack it in, taking a few items that I can work on at home (including this blog). However, at home is my newly-born daughter and since my wife has been dealing with this sweet, joyous bundle of diapers, tears and wailing all day, it will be my turn as soon as I open the door.

Cue the violins again.

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March 26, 2009

University jobs, permanency and so-called ‘musical chairs’

There is a lot of misunderstanding regarding foreigners’ positions at Japanese universities. Ivan Hall lambasted the (allegedly) closed and exclusive mentality of both universities and the Ministry of Education in his 1998 book ‘Cartels of the Mind’. James McCrostie has echoed some of these sentiments more recently in a few articles found here and here.

I think both accounts are a little one-sided and imbalanced in many places, although they also certainly hit on a few painful truths. Having been around the scene for awhile I am acquainted with several cases of allegedly (there’s that word again) unjust treatment of foreign faculty at Japanese universities. From my front row seat, I’d have to say that I’ve seen all types: cases where the authorities were clearly discriminatory and unreasonable in their actions, cases where both parties have been sloppy or have failed to live up to expectations or agreements, and an equal number of cases where the non-Japanese complainant squarely falls into the “What on earth were you thinking!” category.

I myself have been involved in union action against what I viewed as unjust and unfair practices in the past. I say this so that no one rushes to the conclusion that my hesitancy to outright condemn the current foreign-teacher contracting practices at Japanese universities is a product of some deeper-rooted political polemic. So let me talk about and explain the situation as I see it.

Q- What was the great purge of the mid 90’s all about?

During this decade, the Ministry of Education wanted to loosen their ties with national universities and grant even more independence to private universities. This meant that less governmental funding was available. Universities had to gradually become semi-commercial/privatized entities (houjinka) which meant a lot of applying for grants and awards, fund raising etc. In other words, the money was no longer automatic.

Q- How did this affect individual universities?
Here’s an important thing to note. MEXT did NOT (and almost never DOES) tell individual universities how and where to save or appropriate funds, although they did offer various suggestions and general guidelines, but rather it was, and still is, up to each university to adapt and use funds according to their needs and local policies (this lead to an enormous number of faculty meetings in the late 90’s). (Sidebar- this notion that ‘someone in MEXT ‘calls’ ‘someone’ in each university and passes on ‘directives’, like a general at army headquarters passing on orders to his field commander, is just…well…wrong). Anyway, one of the ramifications of this was, of course, the possibility of cutbacks in faculty. Everyone, including MEXT, was aware that there was a lot of deadwood in Japanese universities. One response to this was that something called the ninkisei system was introduced. It meant that tenure, as we know it, was gone. Instead, a limited number of renewals on contracts (different lengths of time and number of renewals according to different status) became the norm. These renewals have to be voted upon by other staff and be able to meet the fiscal budget. And yeah- there is no doubt an element of quid pro quo involved in these semi-automatic renewals, thus not really achieving the aim of getting rid of the deadwood or even stirring them to life.

Q- So, what about your contract, Mike?

Originally I was hired as a Gaikokujin Kyouin (foreign teacher) on a one year contract renewable six times with no further extension. Now I am on a five year contract, renewable three times, with no possibility of extension. I have to be voted in by the board of trustees after completion of each contract. Part of what gets reviewed at this time is my university “rating”, that is we accumulate points for publications, presentations, community involvement, participation in professional organizations, committee work and so on. This is another ramification of the move to semi-privatization, as new standards of quality control and re-checking have been introduced.

Q- Whoa whoa back up there. How did you get from the original six years with no extension into this current, more permanent contract? Isn’t that an extension?

Actually I applied for newly created position (junkyouju- Associate Professor). The old position of gaikokujin kyouin was nullified, a new one opened, and I guess I had achieved enough during my time as gaikokujin kyouin to warrant a longer stay under a different contract (yes, I had to officially retire for one day and even got my retirement benefits before re-starting under the new contract).

Now here’s where I’d like you, dear reader, to consider something. If you read certain sites or books you will get the strong impression that foreigners gaining anything close to a permanent position is very rare. Yet, if you’ve been around the Japan EFL scene for awhile you’ll undoubtedly note that many of the same Gaijin teacher/professors’ names pop up here and there and that their affiliations are the same year after year. Yes, many foreigners are getting or holding more secure longer-term positions.

Just using my smallish home city of Miyazaki as an example…besides myself at the UoM, we have an international university with a largely NJ staff, most of whom are long-termers, a municipal university which has granted long-term employment to NJ faculty, and a joshi tandai (women’s junior college) where the NJs have been around longer than I have at the University of Miyazaki. We all know each other. No, it’s not rare to meet tertiary education permanents or near-permanents. True- some NJs have gotten a raw deal and others have shot themselves in the foot but I simply can’t say that it is the standard or default practice to dump the foreign teachers quickly.

Q- But Japanese university teachers automatically get lifelong employment, don’t they?

In short, no. Most entry level Japanese teachers start on similarly impermanent, limited term contracts or various part-time contracts and slowly work themselves into better positions. Yes, some do lose their jobs when their contracts expire. We have some Japanese teachers in the English department at the UoM who are currently on limited contracts. And we have a few NJ teachers in the same tenuous entry-level position. Yeah- it’s a precarious spot to be in, not knowing what’s going to happen in a few years but it’s not as one-sided as it’s often made out to be.

Q- What about this ‘gaikokujin kyouin’ thing? Tell me more…

Eliminating these odd positions was one of the suggestions made by MEXT during the reform years. These ‘foreign teacher’ position were relics of the Meiji or Taisho periods and carried the implicit assumption that the foreigner was only going to be in Japan for a short time and would therefore have fewer responsibilities, be quite generously rewarded financially, but be very limited in terms of job permanency and influence. Unfortunately, some universities used the elimination of this position to dump some foreign teachers outright (no, no one at MEXT ‘told them to’ although they do have the habit of passing the buck back to MEXT). Were they deadwood? Were they not planning to be long-termers anyway? Did they get the shaft? I can think of examples of all three.

My own university parlayed this into a new, more permanent position (with far more responsibilities and a salary cut). Thank you. I think. Am I just lucky or is it because I am such a raging stud of a teacher? The accidental recipient of undeserved largesse or the due consequence of being such an academic and intellectual colossus? Am I good at playing my cards right or did they just fall into a fortunate place for me?

Q- But isn’t discrimination still rampant at Japanese universities?

Here’s a waffly answer- it depends. What does it ‘depend’ on? Well, for one, if your Japanese is excellent you’re obviously going to be more fully clued in to what’s going on and your viewpoints will hold far more sway on policy-making committees. If your Nihongo is poor, it is natural that in some sense you will be marginalized. (Mine is about middling- decent in terms of committee work- which can involve some obtuse, convoluted and formalized expressions- although daily work lingo is no problem at all).

Your fellow profs will, as can be expected, express a variety of attitudes. Worst are the few (yes, a minority) who may feel the necessity to remind me that I have a “Japanese job”. Funny that. I thought it was just a job- a job that I was qualified better to do than the other candidates. I don’t remember seeing a “Japanese nationals only” clause in the announcement. (Sidebar- these tend to be the same people who interpret everything as a cultural difference- “So sensei, you argued against the new e-learning course. I think your American individualistic culture can’t quite understand our Japanese plan”. Yes, there are always a few throwbacks of that particular vintage).

There are also those who have the quaint notion that should your contract be abrogated you could always “go home”. Yeah. And any of them could equally “go home”, back to Nagoya, or Osaka or wherever they originally came from. It’s as if they think I have a “real” job waiting open for me back in Canada, perhaps where my “real house” and “real wife and family” are waiting too. What I suppose I should call my “fake” house, wife and family are 5 minutes down the road from the university. That is what I “go home” to everyday.
(Sidebar- This inevitably reminds me of my trips to the immigration office before I got my Japanese permanent residency status six years back. I often had to fill out forms asking me for my “home address” which was presumably somewhere in Canada. Because I hadn’t lived in a permanent house in Canada since I had entered university as a student, and because my parents had moved three times since I had left Canada many moons ago, I had no idea what my “real” address was supposed to be. I didn’t want to provide false information, like my old childhood home [which I think now may be a crack house] so I usually opted for my parents’ then-current address, which was often a place I had never even visited, let alone lived in)

But such people are, as I said earlier, a small minority (an irritating minority, but a minority nonetheless). Most of my Japanese colleagues are quite accepting and cosmopolitan and think it quite natural that I be in a “permanent” position and play an active role in the faculty. So that’s what I do. If there is a type of sequestering, it is due far more to the nature of departmental politics (turf wars rage at universities) than my being a Gaijin.

BTW-some hints on what you can do to get or hold university positions are coming in a future blog entry.


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June 15, 2009

The Daily Yomiuri column (and two more grammar puzzles)

1. Two more student-generated grammar puzzles

A few more classroom questions about English that have popped-up recently. (Note to readers- it’s not that I don’t have answers to these questions or am befuddled as to how to deal with them. The idea here is to throw out some oddities and ask how you would address or explain them):

A. I’m 18 years old.
vs. I’m an 18 year old boy.

The plural for years disappears in the 2nd case. Why? After all, the ‘18’ is still explicit.

B. I come from Oita. Oita is one of the prefectures in Kyushu
vs I come from Oita. Oita is a prefecture in Kyushu.

Why does the former seem awkward? (In Japan the former seems to be taught as a legitimate way of expressing the latter)

2. That Daily Yomiuri newspaper column I write

As some readers know, I write a monthly column in the Daily Yomiuri newspaper called ‘Indirectly Speaking’. The focus is on EFL learning and teaching in Japan. Since I get asked the same questions about that gig a lot I thought I’d answer some here in indulgent self-interview form.

Q- How did you get that gig with the Yomiuri?
A. Six years ago they were actively seeking articles on EFL/ESL for their Language Connection section. I wrote one about the importance of the awareness of pragmatic force in EFL classrooms. They seemed to like it and asked me if I wanted to continue to so on a monthly basis. They may still be looking for contributors- I haven’t checked recently.

Q- Why the title ‘Indirectly Speaking’?
A- Only because that first article was about pragmatic force and thereby, implicatures, which of course is an indirect way of communicating. I’ve wanted to change the title but the editor seems to like it as it is.

Q- Do you get a huge stack o’ money for these articles?
A- No. I get a very basic gratuity.

Q- So why do it? Do you get a publication credit?
A- It’s neither refereed nor academic so I don’t get a publication credit. It goes onto my resume and database as a kind of professional social service, flying the flag of the university I suppose. Basically, it’s a nice public format for self-expression.

Q- Do the editors impose a lot of rules and restrictions?
A- Not really. They want me to do op-ed/commentary articles so that’s what I do. As long as its connected to English teaching in Japan I have free reign. I’m pretty sure they don’t want the articles to be too vanilla so I try to say something a little offbeat each time but without being deliberately provocative or knee-jerk contrarian. I have to keep in mind that not all readers are teaching professionals and that over half are not English native speakers too. There is also a word limit of 1000-1200 words which is the hardest part for a bombastic, grandiloquent, blowhard like myself. The copy editors usually write the titles, although I might suggest something else if I’m not happy with what they’ve come up with.

Q- Do you get a lot of comments from readers about the articles? And what are these comments like?
A- I always get at least a few follow-up comments for the less controversial columns and quite a number for the more controversial items- about two-thirds of these are from native English speakers. If they write to my personal mail address (attached to the columns) they are usually positive. Japanese teachers are apt to ask more for clarification but can also be very critical. I give them credit for writing directly to me and questioning my positions though.

Online, if you do the right word searches you’ll find some unflattering comments about the columns. Some are just downright weird- people with bizarre chips on their shoulders, those with a knee-jerk reflex to ‘take my uni big shot punk ass downtown’. Others clearly haven’t understood the article (and have obviously not even made the effort to try) but that doesn’t stop them from spouting off all sorts of nonsense. A few offer thoughtful and constructive criticism but the typical internet forums are obviously not great founts of such insight (‘You are a looser and a moran’). This is the price you pay when you have even the slightest public profile so I shrug it off and have stopped looking. The only comments I find frustrating are those that engage in unfounded speculation about my work or background (‘I heard that Guest didn’t graduate from high school and actually works part-time at a Mr. Donut and got this column through his family’s LDP connections’ ). That type of thing. Go figure.

Q- Is it hard?
A. Coming up with topics and ideas is not. The biggest problem is the last-minute editing. If you write much you probably know the feeling when you’ve stared at something so long you no longer see it objectively- when your eyes pass over an obvious problem. Or, you make one small change that demands a restructuring or rephrasing elsewhere. Then you have to change something else to avoid repetition but that throws the main idea out of order. So you start tinkering with it too much and, like messing with the intestines of the computer, there’s a good chance you’ll actually be making the whole thing worse.

With a blog like this I can re-edit without any concern but with a newspaper column, once it’s published any blotches remain blots forever. When I read the article on the day of publication I occasionally notice some sloppy stylistic problem or an out-an-out error which is now staring at me boldly in the face. It can feel a bit like looking in the mirror after you’ve been chatting up an attractive lady and seeing a big green chunk of spinach jutting out from between your teeth.

Q- Has anything strange happened regarding these columns?
A. One got reprinted in the China Daily so it was all over English-speaking China. Wouldn’t you know it- that column was about the difficulties that Japanese have with acquiring English. I had no idea that the Yomiuri let the China Daily copy it (I certainly wasn’t informed).
The Star (a Malaysian newspaper) ran the same piece which lead to a Japanese person living in Malaysia to write a baffling response (I'll post the link to this when I find it) accusing me of linguistic imperialism and generally a being bigoted know-nothing.

Some universities have also used my columns as texts on their entrance exams but they don’t tell me until the exams have finished (due to exam security). They have a deal with the Yomiuri such that columns like mine can be used without explicit written consent.

Anything else you might want to know?

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July 30, 2009

The So-Called Off-Season or No, I am not eating a banana pancake in Kuta as I write this

The other day one of my genkier students popped by my office to chat and check up on my condition (see the previous blog entry). Her opening line was, "Oh! You're here! I thought you would be probably be away on your summer holidays". This was 4 days after the last regular class had finished.

Why do so many people- even colleagues- assume I'm on my 'summer holiday' as soon as the last class is completed?

OK- I can forgive the parents in the neighborhood who, having their kids at home, assume that Sensei is equally free to frolic as he/she pleases. But students and colleagues? C'mon!

Here's the deal, folks. I work at a national university so I am considered a civil servant and civil servants don't get 'summer holidays'. Yes, we are officially allowed to take 20 workdays off over the course of a year. We are rarely able to take them.

True, we are also given three extra summer work days off. (We can choose which days but interestingly, the majority of my Japanese colleagues take the three days that correspond to O-bon, which is one of the worst times to travel of course, but with extended family obligations and celebrations...
As for me, I tend to use the days in mid-September when prices and crowds drop)

The reality is that actual classes take up very little of my total time and effort, and again, I know this is true for many teachers out there. But for those who think I'm getting a full body massage in Goa as I write this here's what we do during the so-called university off-season:

1. Tests and re-tests (automatic passes at university? Hah!)

2. Grading (including lengthy essays) and entering the marks followed by a disgruntled student who comes by and wants to know exactly how you calibrated his final score of 64.

3. Meeting one-on-one with students whose assignments need further work- and rarely those students you really want to meet

4. Committees- things like the bi-annual meeting of the Committee to Statistically Re-Confirm the Auxiliary Status of General Committee Contingency Planning. I have several of these babies. And we are required to produce sub-committee reports

5. The bulk of entrance exam content enters the mold at this time. Native English speakers are inevitably involved in this

6. Summer course and special classes have to be taught- I have to teach a concentrated course (15 sessions in 4 days) in Comparative Culture and English Education at Kumamoto U. next week. I have a similarly concentrated English for Medical Purposes 5th year course to teach at the end of August. Both demand a fair bit of preparation

7. Fall is conference season. The proposals have already been put in but summer is the time to work on the presentations, power point slides, and accompanying papers

8. This is one of the few times during the year in which you can concentrate on doing, writing, or editing research. Considering a university teacher may be expected to produce three or four items per year, this can take up an undue amount of time and effort

9. Lengthy write-ups for kaken-hi research grants

10. This is the time of year that doctors and medical researchers come to my office and ask me to check their English. This holds true for many office workers producing English documents too

11. A large national conference on Medical Education is to be held in Miyazaki in early September and I have to give a report and presentation on our English education system. This involves a fair bit of advance co-ordination since we are serving as quasi-hosts

12. Yeah- that thing I forgot

So, no, I'm not back in Canada for a full two months. At best if I decide to visit the family in Canada I could grab about a week or so before work obligations would come a knockin'. And no, I'm not backpacking around the beaches Thailand while I blog.

So, now you- dear reader- know the score, and no doubt many of you are in a similar boat. But why oh why would many of my colleagues also assume that I'm off sipping Pina Coladas in the South Seas? 'Because that's what we've heard foreigners do on their summer vacations'? Why would they assume that I don't have committee work (like them), don't apply for grants (like them), don't research and publish it (ditto), don't have to teach or serve at special courses and events...keep on going...

The popular notion that the native English teacher must be hitting the bars of Siem Reap as soon as the final class bell rings troubles me. Can you see the light on in my office every morning from 8:30? Well, that's me!

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October 08, 2009

Unintentionally positive discrimination, fraternizing, and all that

A potpourri of smaller items today.

1. Unintentionally positive discrimination
Here's a case in which native-English speakers actually receive a positive break in the university heirarchy.

Like all national universities in Japan, ours has a database in which our various achievements, duties, involvements and so forth are compiled. These are assigned points, depending upon the size of the achievement, importance of duty (usually meaning committee work) and so on. The total 'value' of your database score can be a factor when renewing contracts.

Interestingly, in our database, a presentation given abroad is given a higher ranking than a domestic presentation. So are papers published in English, especialy in foreign journals. This is obviously meant to emphasize the importance of international recognition and of furthering academic horizons for Japanese academics. But of course, this also means that without too much effort, almost by default, I can pick up a lot of easy database points.

So, here's the 'moral' question. If we operate upon the principle of complete equality then I should be subject to the same system and rankings as my Japanese colleagues, right? But clearly this 'equality' favours me in some respects as a native speaker of English. So it is quite arguable that this full equality is actually unfair. An interesting dilemma.

Here's the counterbalance though- not being fully competent in Japanese (and I mean hardcore academic or administrative Japanese here) means that I inevitably take a lower ranking in other categories- I will not be taking high-ranking roles on committees or positions of high influence within the community or wider society in general (which is a key section on the database). And this will always be my achilles heel as an NJ.

2. The unending mystery of contract renewals...
I've written on this topic earlier but I keep learning more, as the current Houjinka system has made contracts something of an open-ended free-for-all. Anyway, it seems that many university departments apply for grant money to establish new positions under the rubric of 'new researcher'. One of the conditions usually included is that the researcher not have worked in a university before. It is a way of finding new blood and giving these people a chance to get into the university system. As you know though, these are almost always limited contracts, dependant upon the nature of the grant or funding. Obviously, by definition, one can't be a 'new researcher' forever.

Many NJs are hired under such contracts (although the number of Japanese hired in this manner is inevitably higher). The notion is akin to that of a trial or probation period- after which there are several options. Once the contract expires, the idea is not necessarily that the 'new researcher' be kicked out on their asses but rather, if valued by the institution, they can be re-hired or re-contracted under a different, hopefully more permanent, designation which is funded from a different budget. This, in part, explains the musical chairs nature of some contract renewals.

Unfortunately this still also allows some university authorities the moral luxury of believing that NJs hired in this manner, and I mean those fully contributing, won't suffer much if the contract ends outright because they can always 'go home'. Luckily for me, my faculty does not think in this way and fully recognizes that we have lives and families in Japan. The upshot of course is that the NJ hired under such a contract is expected to fully operate as a part of the team, which includes...

3. Fraternizing (or not)
Recently I was asked to act as a Zacho (an academic Master of Ceremonies) for the foreign language section of a Pan-Kyushu university conference held in Miyazaki. This was a very Japanese conference with all the strict formatting and formalities you might expect. No, it was not just about foreign language study, but for all humanities subjects. It was a big suit and tie deal. As Zacho, I had to use very formalized Keigo (respectful) Japanese and follow the rather rigid 'way' of introductions, announcements and shitsugi oto (Q and A).

Now that was OK. I was glad to be asked to take part, which represented a further validation of my status at the university, plus a chance to learn the Zacho role and duly brush up on my Keigo. (even though it was held on a Saturday and with no extra pay- but hey, that's what you do to belong)

The problem was the party afterwards. I'm a family man and I had an important event with my son lined up so I told the organizer (from my uni faculty) that I wouldn't be able to attend the follow-up party. The effect was palpable. He did not criticize or attempt to dissuade me but there was clearly an air of having neglected my duty in his face, despite his "Oh, I see. Fine" response.

We all know that extra duty as a part of being on the team, including the post-kakari drinking and eating uchiage, is a sign of your commitment in Japan. But, and I'll be frank about this, the discussion and atmosphere at such events is not always so enjoyable for me. Sure, I like to have a few drinks and chat with colleagues but this was to be one of those more formalized- seiza ands speech- affairs with people who I really didn't have much connection with on a personal basis. And to be perfectly frank I feel more obligation towards my son.

Still though, even three weeks later, I have a sense of regret, that I have done the wrong thing as far as being in the university fraternity goes....

But on a positive note...

4. Good stuff from a student
Here's something that makes you feel good to be a teacher:

Last year I had a first year student who was a slacker. He missed too many classes and even in those he did attend he was inattentive and lazy. His evaluations reflected this and I failed him. Now at my university, General English is a required course and if you fail a required course you have to repeat the whole year (meaning you can take some second year classes but you will be classified as a first year student until you pass all the required courses).

Of course failing a student also means you get to see the laggards again next year and so this student entered my class once again recently for the second term. I expected much of the same from him but soon noticed that he was participating more actively, responding more dynamically with other students during the tasks, and generally seemed to be more into it.

At the end of class he approached me and told me in good, clear English that after failing last year he had asked himself why he had failed. Why did he suck at English and why was he so lazy and indifferent? To answer this he set a challenge for himself. He took six months off and went to Vancouver and focused on lifting his English skills up several notches.

And he did. His whole student deportment seemed to have been revitalized, his posture, the glint in his eyes. Here's a guy that realized he was lagging behind, challenged himself to pull up his bootstraps- and succeeded in doing so. Cool.

I wish I could say that his transformation came primarily from my teaching and my class but I'd be lying. Still, it's uplifting to see such students take the English bull by the horns...

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October 13, 2009

(1) Japanese English teacher stereotypes and (2) boring academic journal writing

1. What REALLY goes on in Japanese English teachers' classrooms?

Someone should do some fact-checking on whether Japanese English teachers really do teach largely grammar-translation classes, as per the popular NJ stereotype.

I ask this because I'm not so sure that we should believe the worst without reason. I sense that NJ teachers often spout the 'J teacher's teach grammar-transalation' line uncritically to uphold the rather smug (and often unfounded) belief that "we NJs" (apologies to Japanese readers but I think you know what I mean here) are invariably progressive teachers who have exciting, meaningful, and dynamic classes. On the other hand, the J teachers supposedly read the textbook and translate the English texts into grammar, putting everyone to sleep, and actually hindering the students' English ability in the process.

The truth is that I have never actually met a Japanese teacher who admits to teaching with a GT methodology. The vast majority that I've met certainly seem up to date in educational theory and practice and use what I would say, as a veteran teacher, are productive, progressive methods in the classroom. Of course, I tend to meet such teachers at conferences and training centers, so it is quite possible that the teachers who make the effort to come to conferences or training centers might be precisely the kind who tend to carry out more productive teaching methodologies in the first place.

But I've also watched several JHS sankanbi lessons (parent visitation days) and am familiar with some JHS and HS textbooks, none of which seem to focus nearly as much on discrete items or grammar or translation as most think.

Interestingly though, many J teachers I've met claim that while they don't personally teach that kind of content or use that kind of methodology, they believe that most others do. But if everyone is believing that it is only true of "others"...

Now, here's where it gets weird: If I ask my university students what kind of English they studied in high school with their J English teachers, almost all of them will say something along the lines of "discrete-item grammar translation". Fine. Except that many of them went to high schools where I know with certainty that old-fashioned methods are not used, and in some cases I even know the individual teachers involved- generally very progressive, inventive types.

So, I can't help but think that most students are not a reliable source on this. They BELIEVE their teachers taught them GT-styled 'preparation for uni entrance exams' English because they believe that's what is supposed to happen in a J English teacher's high school classroom. Pre-conceived notions are automatically fulfilled.

To wit- recently I asked several of my students what they were studying in my J colleagues' English classes. Now I happen to know that he is focusing upon discourse-based writing skills and developing their abilities in academic writing. Nevertheless, the students said that he taught them "grammar". There you go.

But of course the same type of uncritical prejudice may be applied to myself, as an NJ teacher. You see students are convinced, no matter what I actually do try to inculcate in my classes, that what I have REALLY taught them are "some new native-speaker words".
(I happen to know this because one program requires that students write up session reports after each class and I have to help fix them up, hence I see what they wrote regarding my own classes). So, even if I was actually teaching how to put medical data into a format in which doctors confirm or add data in collaboration with other doctors with a focus upon pathology, many students will remember primarily that I taught them: 1. "that the Japanese 'KY' can be expressed as 'X just doesn't get it' in English", because that item happened, by chance, to come up in that session, and 2) that I 'taught' them the words 'cirrhosis' and 'intubation'', although these were simply accidental items included among the data for carrying out the speaking task.

This reverse prejudice also seems to appear in many J teachers' and students' views of what NJ teachers are supposed to be doing in their high school classrooms. The stereotype here is that NJ teachers 'play games' and teach 'daily conversation'-. You know, Hello! How are you? English, regardless of what the NJs actually do (not that some don't just play games and teach 'Daily Conversation'). The unwarranted (and often self-serving) stereotypes cut both ways.

Anyway, it seems like refreshing, air clearing new research is in order to confirm or refute these stereotypes.

2. My problem with scholarly ELT Journals:

So, I've called for confirming research above but I do so with some trepidation.

I've written here and there on this topic before, but the reason why I feel uncomfortable with (many) academic ELT journals became clear to me while forcing myself through yet another such article (related to an upcoming presentation) the other day. Here's what I realized:

Articles in which there is too much quoting or too many references is BAD WRITING! It breaks the flow. It becomes, alternately, dense and jarring. It's thematically restrictive. It is rhetorical overkill. And most of all, it's boring. Having 80% of an article consisting of summarizing what previous researchers have said (and believe me they've said some quite contradictory things in our pseudo-scientific field) is simply a case of arguing that "somebody else said this so it must be true". Why write about what other people have said? It reeks of academic insecurity.

Yeah, yeah I know. It is expected that academics show that they have read the research, that they know the intellectual playing field, that they've done their homework. But why the apparent need to fill two-thirds of an article with this stuff?

Here's what I think. Many editors think they are dealing with papers from grad students- because that's what they actually do at their home universities. You know the situation- a thesis has to make clear what seminal works in the field the graduation candidate has read. So the candidate has to go out of his/her way to prove that they have read all the right stuff by dropping all the 'right' research names and dates all over the essay, like sparrow poop.

But we are not grad students anymore. Nor are the people who might read these journals reading them in order to grade or correct. So why demand (at least implicitly) that scholars write like grad students trying desperately to impress their thesis advisors? This has gotta change...

Editors work hard and perform a thankless service. But certain priorities and beliefs about academic and journal writing should be reconsidered.

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April 05, 2010

Classroom Nurse/Doctor discrmination? You bet! PLUS comments on the Foreign Nurses' EPA Trainee Program in Japan

Two sections today.

The first section is an outline of an interesting discussion I had with a ranking Faculty of Nursing member at our university regarding the controversial EPA agreement completed between Japan and the Philippines/Indonesia, in whichnurses from those countries are able to come to Japan to 'work' as trainees- but with a three-year time limit, unless they are able to pass the standardized Japanese nursing examination in Japanese. This program has been criticized by several pundits in the Western media plus many web-based Japan-oriented sites but there may be more to it than meets the eye, or at least the usual uninformed knee-jerk polemic that tends to surround public debate on such issues. (Those wishing to look at some survey stats on how Japanese hospital officials actually feel about the issue might want to peruse this.

The second section (with that eye-catching title) elaborates on why I discrminate in my classroom between doctors (or at least medical students) and nursing students.
But let's start with the Foreign Trainee Nursing Program EPA discussion.

Part one- The Nursing EPA Foreign Trainee Program

I had a chance to discuss the program's merits/demerits and surrounding details the highest-ranking individual in terms of introducing and administering the program at our university hospital. So far, they haven't introduced it here- and probably won't under the present circumstances. Here's the lowdown:

Me: Some commentators see the 'three years only' rule as unfairly limiting and ultimately leading to a de facto revolving door, use-'em-and-discard-'em, disposable nurse program where only Japan benefits from cheap labour.

Response: That's just nonsense, although I too have heard some foreign reports saying this. First it is a bilateral program. The terms of the program were hammered out in conjunction with the Ministries of Health in the Philippines and Indonesia. And they all agreed on the time limitation. Do you know why? Because they trained these skilled nurses for service in their own country, at their own expense. They don't want a brain drain, to lose them to richer countries. They want them to learn abroad, and of course it is expected that foreign currency will be remitted home, but officials in those countries most certainly do NOT want to see the fruits of their labour disappear abroad.

Me: Some commentators see it as a way of limiting immigration or assimilation into allegedly xenophobic Japanese society.

Response: The Ministry of Health worked out this agreement, not the Department of Immigration. They are worlds apart. It's strange that some people would confuse the two. But foreigners often see Japan as one big unit, like Japan Inc. It's a kind of prejudice or misunderstanding I think.

Me: But wouldn't a longer program provide an answer to Japan's nurse shortage? And wouldn't it therefore ease the burden on Japanese nurses?

Response: Not really. In fact, the program creates more work for Japanwese nurses.

Me: How so?

Response: The foreign trainees have limited Japanese or no Japanese language skills at all at first. That's just a fact. Now, a nurse's job is typically made up of four parts. First, housekeeping. Second, physical treatment and therapeutic administration. Third, personal care ('wellness') and fourth, paperwork. Paperwork is a huge part, especially nowadays with electronic charts. But unless a foregn trainee is fluent in Kanji they could not possibly do the paperwork. Treatment and administration also have huge liability issues so the foreign traineees are unable to carry out those duties. A mistake based upon a communication misunderstanding could have enormous repercussions so they'd be excluded from that role until they have a full Japanese license.

That leaves personal care and housekeeping, less than half a regular nurses' responsibilities, that they can carry out- and even the personal care issue can be dodgy if their Japanese verbal skills are limited. Now, the problem is, if these trainee nurses are registered as being on-staff the hospital administrators are allowed to increase the patient load accordingly, because the number of nurses has officially 'increased'. But because the foreign trainees can't do the same job it simply increases the workload for the regular nursing staff. In addition, they have to train the trainees too and sometimes even have to help them learn the Japanese language. So where are the benefits for the Japanese nurses in all this?

Me: Would the foreign trainees get the same wage as a Japanese nurse?

Response: As a Japanese trainee nurse yes, but there are other factors in the agreement that may make it slightly lower. The specific hospital administration does not decide the wage. But I can tell you that the nurses' unions are creating opposition to the program since they believe that by paying a lower wage to foreign nurses that they'll be priced out of the market and replaced by cheaper foreign nurses.

Me: Is that a real possibility?

Response: They could just pay them the exact same wage but in the end that would actually turn out to cost more because the hospital has to pay for some aspects of training, housing etc. and liability issues. And hospitals are expected to avoid being in the red these days. Even with program funding fiscal perfomance is very strictly monitored. Why operate at a loss with both increased liability and tougher working conditions for the Japanese nurses?

Me: Isn't it a bit much to expect people with little experience in Japanese to pass a professional exam after only three years?

Response: It's certainly tough but that will at least weed out the less than serious candidates. But understand also that if it takes any longer to prepare for the license it means that the extra work for the Japanese nurses involved also goes on longer. And, as I said, the governments of the participating countries are very worried about a skill and brain drain.

Me: Thanks for your time.

(As you probably realize, the above exchange is both paraphrased and translated, although I can say in good conscience that I have not deviated from the original responses in any substantial manner. I also hesitate to name the person I spoke to- I'm not a reporter and this is not reporting per se. Let's just call the person a ranking university official with knowledge of the program. Finally, I encourage knowledgeable readers who feel that the information contained above is inaccurate to comment)

Part two: Why I discriminate between nursing and medical students in my classroom

Sometimes discrimination, in the purest sense of the word, makes perfect sense. It does in this case too.

No, I do not treat the nursing and med students the same. I use different content, have different expectations and employ different evaluation criteria. Here's why:

1. The medical students are academically more proficient.
95% of Med student Center Shiken scores are higher than corresponding Nursing scores. And even if you discount the academic viability of the Center Shiken you might trust me when I tell you that the quality of school, juku and related records for med students is also substantially higher.

2. Med students generally are more proficient in English.
Our university has English as one of the two core subjects on its entrance exam, hence Med students partial to Eigo will tend to choose our entrance exam. On the other hand, English is not a subject on the Nursing entrance exam.

3. Med students are on average older and more worldly.
This is just a statistically verifiable fact. Almost all the nursing students are 18 and come from Kyushu. Many, if not most, have never worked or been abroad. The med students come from all over Japan and many are in their early 20's as freshmen, having worked or travelled (or having studied other subjects post HS).

4. Doctors will almost certainly use English in specific ways while in service, nurses much less so.
Doctors will certainly come across English in both reading and writing research, conferring with peers internationally, or attending conferences. Doctors will probably give a presentation or do an English poster session at some time. They are also more likely (by far) to be assigned abroad for research. The only category in which nurses might use English as much as a doctor is with the occasional NJ patient who doesn't speak Japanese (although here in Miyazaki that usually means only Korean or Chinese monolinguals, not English speakers). The chance that a medical professional out in these parts will meet a non-J speaking foreigner are not high or consistent enough to warrant it being a foundation of university curriculum design.

What then is the point of teaching nursing students English?
First, learning a foreign language, or at least engaging a 2nd language with a cognitive, content-based focus is part of a good academic grounding for any university graduate. Second, it could inspire those who do want to become bilingual, international medical professionals to go further (and we do have courses that allow for such students to expand their English skills and international horizons).

How does all this manifest itself in the English nursing classroom?
There is less of an emphasis on developing professional discourse and academic literacy skills than there is with medical students although in no way are these neglected. Rather, the content is less rigorous both in terms of expected English proficiency and content/tasks. The teaching moves at a slower pace BUT neither is it what we might call remedial or Eikaiwa-based. Evaluation is also more gentle.

Does this mean that med classes are more engaging, fulfilling, and easier to teach from the Prof's perspective?
Hell, no. The nursing classes are generally great fun. They are less intense, take themselves less seriously, and hold a somewhat refreshingly cavalier approach to the classroom and English that lightens the teacher's pedagogical load. In short, nurses classes seem to have fewer classroom 'issues'.

Does anybody else out there teach both medical and nursing students? What are your feelings on this?

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April 09, 2010

Kaken-hi: The perils of getting what you wish for

Congratulations to me. I think.

To tell the truth I'm a little shell-shocked. You see, I was just informed that I received the equivalent of $20,000 (very sloppy numerical miscalculation now fixed) in the form of a 2-year research grant. Most readers have probably heard of kakenhi, a grant-in-aid for scientific research, doled out by the Japanese MoE through the university system. But if you haven't, here's the lowdown:

Kakenhi are what keeps departmental budgets (and to a certain extent, jobs) afloat and are a fundamental feature of working in a Japanese university. Fundamental because you are expected to at least apply for a grant if you are a full-time teacher. Fundamental because any specialized programs you participate in will likely have resulted from somebody's kakenhi cache. Fundamental because the number of kakenhis your department receives is often (and unfortunately) considered to be the primary indicator of your departmental worth. Fundamental because any score founded upon your database 'gyoseki' (academic achievements) will rise exponentially if you have one.

As a result, I have carried out the copious kakenhi application procedures (10 pages plus) 4 times now. To be frank, I have never put too much thought into the actual content of the research proposal because I have never needed the money (or more accurarely, the various fiscal and bureaucratic responsibilities that come with it). In other words, I was just going through the application procedures because it was expected of me (making no attempt at all looks bad on your database), without any actual hope or expectation that I would get huge sums of cash thrown my way.

But the other day- congratulations, Guest sensei. You got a kakenhi.
The plan is to research, develop, and produce a viable English corpus for our nursing faculty. To be perfectly honest, the idea was actually suggested to me by a colleague who is doing Doctoral research in the field and who thought that a combined proposal, written in English, would aid her chances. But now, as the 'principal researcher' the fiscal research ball is in my workplace court. (Was that a sloppy attempt at a metaphor or what?)

Anyway, here are my suggestions for those who hope to reap one of these babies (and it would be nice to hear further suggestions from those of you who've been successful in securing kakenhi dough):

1. Write it in English. Because you can and... because you can. The competition will be lesser and although the decision-making committee will have someone or two proficient in English on board, there will never be the same degree of scrutiny that meets a Japanese proposal. And it just seems more 'international' somehow.

2. Focus upon the notion of collaborative research. Especially if it is cross-cultural or trans-national. Be sure to mention how you plan to carry out investigations with the highly-respected Dr. Schlong at MIT as well as the eminent Prof. Gakuryoku from Kyoto Univ. (I'm not at all suggesting that you be facetious or try duping the committee with false names- your research WILL be investigated and followed-up on and fraudulence can ruin careers and land you in jail).

3. Since they are officially SCIENTIFIC grants you should employ a scientific research outline in your proposal. This doesn't necessarily mean statistical sophistry but it does mean having clear, palpable targets and research goals. A lot of EFL-based research is, IMO, pseudo-scientific at best (and that is NOT a criticism) but you will have to use the format and terminology to make the right heads nod.

4. Have a clearly stated fiscal budget laid out. State directly that you wil need 500,000 Yen to go to Dublin to research the effect that Guinness has upon the discourse involving the local variety of English. State outright that you require 300,000 to visit Bali in order to take first-hand field notes on the types of English strategies required in the upmarket resort industry.

5. Involve research partners who can share the burden. Some 'buntan-sha' are listed only in name in order to make an impression but having a buntan-sha or two who will actually be heavily involved (and is good with computer graphics, making resports, and reading/writing kanji, dealing with bureaucratic paperwork) will be best.

6. You must produce something tangible and this must be stated from the beginning. Big, fat reports that no one reads are commonly doled out to fulfil this condition but if you don't want to bore yourself to death, or dupe the tax-paying public, you should produce a viable book or piece of software that other people will WANT to use, something that gets you cited, noted and most importantly, gets your name on that extended work contract.

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May 13, 2010

Privacy, transparency and why you must know what I'm looking at on the web

Transparency is one of the most popular recent buzzwords in Japan- one of those imported motifs which is assumed to side with a progressive and enlightened society. After all, a society in which public officials can be held up to public scrutiny, where the taxpayers have the right to access public data, makes for accountable leadership. This is an increasingly common feature of Japanese universities as well , particularly those (like mine) in the public sector.

Unfortunately the notion of transparency can run counter to another concept cherished by stable, modern societies which is gaining increasing currency in Japanese public policy making- privacy. You see, although Joe Taxpayer is paying my salary, he (or his wife, Jane Taxpayer) may have the right to know how their hard-earned taxes (have you ever noticed how tax money is always 'hard-earned'? Isn't easily made money taxed?) are being used, but it doesn't follow that allowing access to all public records is in the best interest of that same public. The police are on the public payroll but that doesn't mean you can just saunter into the 5th Precinct and start rummaging through crime scene evidence.

I understand that there has to be a balance- after all there should be ways of checking and confirming that I am not using my kaken-hi (grant-in-aid) funds to purchase backrubs from nubile 19 year old aerobics instructors. But I don't like the sense of John Q. Public breathing down my neck or looking over my shoulder. I'm a little unnerved by having too much of my daily work visible for public consumption. Whatever grade I gave to Taro Yamada (or his wife, Jane Yamada) is between me, Taro, and relevant university officials. I think everyone would agree with this. Likewise, Hanako Watanabe's transcripts should be accessible only a limited number of officials and even fellow teachers should offer a legitimate reason to access the info. Again, I don't expect much argument here.

But what about my course syllabus? Or my class evaluation methods/system? Sure, students should be able to access these (although they in fact almost never do) but I fear revealing too much to John Q. (who, it must be said, is getting a little too big-headed about his being my 'boss' these days). The problem is that data can be abused, misused and misunderstood when available in the public forum. Data regarding the number of students who don't graduate in the standard 4 or 6 years might in fact be due to stricter criteria being used in some faculties (e.g. medicine) but it could (and often is) willfully (?) misinterpreted as representing poor teaching skills or unconcerned faculty in the media or, these days, in blogs.

And then there are all those miscreants, ne'er do wells, and just plain wingnuts with personal or institutional vendettas who scour this type of thing to launch 'claims' ("Hmmm. Guest is required to present a detailed 14 week syllabus but I see only thirteen general lesson plans listed. The university is being slipshod! Maybe I can pry some compensation from them for my emotional distress. And there's the old truck outside with the loudspeakers. I haven't fired up that baby in a while").

Although I understand that my educational history and research focus should be available to Victoria J. Anybody (or her wife, Jane) I do have worries about big brother scrutiny by self-appointed public watchdogs- interestingly, the very opposite mode of oppression that Orwell wrote about. "It seems that according to Guest's publicly accessible web log that he checked Yahoo's Stanley Cup playoff scores for 6 minutes. And on the public lam!", or "So, Guest stayed at the Hotel Puberty on his business trip to Singapore. Well I found a youth hostel on the net for a third of that price. And what about that Oatmeal Stout and India Pale Ale he drank? Were those included in his per diem?". Or the fact that I am writing this blog post while at work and using uncooth phrases such as 'nubile 19 year bold aerobics instructor' (Humorless self-appointed vigilante morality police readers might want to note that this blog is hosted by an educational organization so I can do this at my workplace without compunction- nyah nyah).

The most visceral problem though is that increased transparency increases the amount of work for everybody involved and thereby makes public service less efficient. To wit- the other day I sat through a two-hour rubber-stamp meeting to confirm the acceptance of all the university's transfer students (note- as a committee member I have access to that info but I do feel uncomfortable with it- as may the students). But this meeting, which gave me less time to prepare for the class in the next time slot, was held as a means of increasing transparency- so that accepting transfer students is now not just the province of a few isolated officials but is something that is widely committee-approved for the sake meeting publicly-acceptable protocol.

These days I receive an increasing number of internal email saying things like: All members of the Student Cafeteria Rewiring Committee are required to submit a scanned copy of all academic records for our public website, along with a hard copy of the official seal of the registrar(s) of those institutions. Deadline: tomorrow.Ok- I'm exaggerating, but it is true that I had to file a thorough and detailed kaken-hi budget plan before we even received the money for reasons of public disclosure. Research demands some flexibility but now we are beholden to, straitjacketed by, a budget that may not meet our actual plans and needs, which of course fluctuate. So, is this type of disclosure really serving the best interests of the public? And this is not to mention the office people who have to spend time creating and monitoring those sites. Accountability is increased- while time and energy is wasted.

And this is only one of many examples. I have spent an inordinate amount of time recently filling in various university-related databases because the public demands accountability. For example, if one happens to be on a national university entrance exam committee (and this is just - ahem- hypothetical because the actual names of committee members are not supposed to be made public) one is required to submit a fairly detailed amount of specialized data which will ultimately be made available to Joe and Jane Regularpeople. Doing it accurately and fitting it into the labyrinthine guidelines and categories (mistakes or inaccuracies could cause one to be held accountable to that same public) takes considerable time away from actual class prep, student composition checking, or actual research. Is this what the public actually wants or expects me to be doing with my time?

I can tell you that just down the hall (I work at an attached university hospital) doctors and nurses have the same complaints. The same tensions between patient privacy and transparency predominate. Doctors in particular know that someone somewhere will be scrutinizing every minor decision to look for possible breaches of conduct- parlayable into claims and inquiries- which makes them hesitant when making decisions. Handcuffed.

Doctors, in the name of being held accountable, now have to record every minute nugget of information into records that can often be made accessible to patients, officials and, in some cases, the general public. This means that they are even more overworked, carrying out a lot of what effectively amounts to clerical duties. Requirements to explain in more detail to patients and immediately carry out both paper and an electronic recording of changing an old man's diaper means that the public in the outpatient department will wait longer to see Doc and that there will be fewer Doctors in total seeing them. Is this really in the best interest of the public? Is this the ultimate goal of using taxpayer's money?

Or should tax money be handed over to specialists in the public domain who we trust to do as they see fit and get tagged only when there is some egregious breach? Yes, Virginia there are better checks and balances than John Q. Grudgeholder (and his wives, Jane and Victoria).

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May 27, 2010

J universities as bastions of progressive policy?

There are those who think that Japanese universities are a reflection of the top-down authoritarian structure that they see in Japanese government or large companies- in fact some think of them precisely as extensions of government and companies, as conservative bastions of the 'dominant culture'. Perhaps such people think of all Japanese as falling into line under a regimented authority structure regardless of the actual system employed, in order to suit their own preconceptions about this country. No doubt there are certain inaccessible corridors of power in Japan, like anywhere else, but how widespread is it really? And are universities a reflection of this?

Well, I can speak only for my own university, which I have every reason to believe is typical of national universities, and although located in conservative Miyazaki, the popular view of Japan as a top-down authoritarian society does not hold in this case.

Say what?

Well first let's take a look at the power structure. The president and all faculty deans rotate from department to department and professor to professor and are elected democratically by all full-time faculty. This means that there are no Self-Appointed President-for-LIfe types who founded the university based on their industrialist daddy's cash. Neither is the Riji-kai (Kyouju-kai at unis- like a board of directors) an unchanging cabal of stodgy old boys but rather a fluctuating broad-based set of educators. Here's where Japan's (in?)famous worker rotation system displays some tangible benefits. These are not bureaucratic 'suits' but regular class-teachin', lab-researchin' guys 'n gals MANY OF WHOM DO NOT EVEN WEAR TIES! Every department is represented and every educational (and more) policy of note goes through them. In fact, they tell the bureaucrats what to do.

When Monkasho wishes to implement a guideline or policy this group ratifies it and decides how, or to what degree or in what manner, it may be carried out. Suffice to say that Monkasho guidelines are not carried out like imperial decrees.

Most of the Uni presidents and deans I have known reasonably well and, generally speaking, they are well-travelled, amiable, broad-minded types. It is very easy to arrange a meeting with them. In fact, I recently spent 1 hour discussing the wider establishment of a discourse-based English education focus with the university vice-president, who also happens to be head of the English policy committee (of which yours truly is a member). This wide number of committees with rotating chairs helps to distribute power even more widely so that the power structure remains fluid.

Let's look a little further.

There is an ombusdperson section, openly advertised, with the provisions of due process for grievance are clearly laid out, and complaints can be carried out in confidence. There is also a widely-advertised support center, fully-funded, for sexual harassment, power harassment, alcohol harassment and other unfair or psychologically debilitating practices.

There is a support center for women, staffed entirely by women (and feminist supporters may be happy to note that they are a thorn in the side of some rather rigid older profs), which also lends tangible support regarding child care leave and aid. And yes, males can take advantage of this too (see Matthew Apple's story of taking child care leave from a university in Nara here).

NO ONE tells you what to teach and content is not checked by any 'authority'. This principle is almost religiously enforced, somewhat to the chagrin of visiting part-time English teachers who often want to, or expect to, be told what they should be teaching- and few such directives are forthcoming.

The university grounds are completely and fully smoke-free (although just ten years ago there were numerous smoking areas outside classrooms which became encrusted with a near-permanent yellow sheen and a 24 hour Eau De Marlboro aroma plus every other piece of consumer junk that students tend to leave around for the garbage fairy to pick up).

There are rotating ecology and watchdog committees to monitor mismanagement and abuses and to make/apply further suggestions. I realize that the latter might sound more ominous than progressive but it is management practices that are being checked and balanced so...

I talked about the movement to full access and disclosure (and associated problems) in a recent blog entry.

Another thing I've alluded to here before is the attitude of the office staff and/or bureaucracy. Since professors and doctors call most of the shots there is virtually no sense of being under the thumb of inaccessible boardroom suits. They don't decide policy, they carry it out- and this is reflected in the kindness (almost deference really) with which they treat the teaching faculty.

And how might the university look not-so-progressive? Well, by far the majority of senior profs are male, but that number will almost certainly decrease as the number of women in associate prof positions has risen propotionately in recent years (demographics, demographics). The support center also promotes female researchers/academics in this regard, plus the fact that among the medical staff (I work in the faculty of medicine with an attached hospital), the number of female doctors about to move into positions of greater authority is quite high.

One could say that the number of lecture-oriented classes is still too high, although that too is changing.

Despite these few hiccups, there is little doubt that the authoritarian image of Japan and Japanese institutions held by many does not apply here.

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November 15, 2011

How to Read... a Bible (?!)

Don't worry about the title. I won't go all proselytizin' on ya! After all, while committed evangelicals would probably consider me lapsed or even apostate, hardcore atheists would still call me a theist. (I'll go with whatever God thinks, myself).

Today's focus is actually upon reading, reading for meaning and comprehension that is. And whether you think the Bible is an elaborate selection of fairy tales or God's Inerrant Word I think you'll agree that the Bible has had the most profound impact of any text on Western culture (although it probably holds greater currency in terms of daily affairs outside the West these days). And if so, it is worth understanding what it is all about, right?

Insular and incestuous reading habits

It also serves as an excellent model to show how many people these days fail to read carefully or with insight or depth; how prejudices and false expectations colour our reading. As a result, subsequent praise or critique often miss the point. You can see this occur in numerous forums. With the advent of the internet in particular more and people read only a limited number of genres, often by periodicals or pundits they are familiar with and thus who they are likely to agree with. Reading in an intellectual echo chamber is a by-product of the vast selection the internet allows for. The problem is that the style one exposes oneself to can become insular, the content incestuous. Preaching to the choir is part and parcel of modern polemical exegesis.

There is also the likelihood that people will read superficially, as attention spans decrease. With so much available to titillate many scan only headlines or the first paragraph. Should any twist, irony, or subtlety occur thereafter it is likely to be overlooked.

Genre- readers with 'blurry vision'

Many also fail to catch on to the appropriate genre of a text-- we all know members of the seemingly perpetual "they don't get it" crowd. We wouldn't normally start reading a horoscope with the same schema that we use when reading a phone book, a court document, or a love letter. But some people clearly have blurry vision, if not outright diplopia, when it comes to adopting the correct reading schema (and I'm not just talking about second language learners here, native speakers seem less and less adept in such tasks). They can't really read.

For example, I've had people assume that this very column is supposed to be a place for presenting research. Some have written to the Daily Yomiuri newspaper (where I have a monthly column) chastising me for not reporting the facts or conducting interviews-- which always gives the editorial staff a bit of a laugh considering that everything about the layout, location, and tenor of the column screams, "COMMENTARY!"

Tenor- and an 'IQ above the level of a Crustacean'

Speaking of tenor, this is another area that many readers fail to grasp. The archetype is probably Dave Barry's old 'Mister Language Person' humour 'advice' column where, as Barry put it, anybody with an IQ above the level of a crustacean should be able to see that it is all a joke. Yet, Barry regularly received hundreds of angry letters questioning his so-called language expertise pointing out his dubious 'explanations'. (Closer to home, I once wrote a parody to which someone objected that the target of the parody had not in fact said those things that I had parodied. Hmmmm).

Sometimes of course, the onus is also upon the writer to be cognizant of the conventions of the genre (both schematic and stylistic) that help the reader identify both genre and tenor. The lame 'I was only joking' response in cases where readers are left perplexed or even offended by the 'joke' doesn't cut it if the writer has failed to lay sufficient ground for humour-- if the writer hasn't used the signals and conventions that savvy readers might be expected to know. Regardless, the ability of many readers to accurately focus and interpret a text, particularly anything with complexity seems to be in a downward spiral.

Regent College (not Big Ed's School O' Bible Learnin')

Hence the Bible. Now, you might well be wondering if I have any authority to expound upon this topic. Well in fact, I did complete a Master's of Theology at a very well-known and highly-regarded place called Regent College, which is on the campus of UBC in Vancouver, is affiliated with UBC, and shares some faculty, credit and students. (Veteran readers of the Uni-files will know why I am stating all this-- because some people would like it to be believed that my degree was awarded by the academic equivalent of Big Ed's School O' Bible Learnin' and Transmission Repair).

Because of my interest in theology, I also developed an interest in language, interpretation, communication, translation, exegesis, and hermeneutics and, towards the end of my degree, I began taking several linguistics courses at UBC proper (some of which counted towards my Master's in Theology and others of which went towards gaining an ESL Teacher's Certificate from UBC proper). This was also my main field of interest when getting a later MSc in Applied Linguistics. So, I'd like to think that this is a field I know something about.

The Bible- not a self-help book by Dr. God

Now, on to the Bible. We might want to start with a 'big picture' question, that is, what genre is the Bible? I'll answer this first by stating what it is not. It is not an apologia for itself. I've never understood the Christian witness' logic of telling skeptics that if they would just read the Bible they'd get it, or that the answers to all the problems in life are all there like it's just a big, black self-help book by Dr. God. I can't imagine anyone sitting down with it, in an attempt to decide if they believe it or 'agree' with it or not, and upon completion saying, "Yeah, that sounds about right to me!" The Bible is not trying to prove its own veracity-- it is the story of God and God's relationship with his people.

Nor is it a handy-dandy rule book for living (save for bits of the Epistles, which were again written for very specific audiences) or some sort of cosmic legal treatise. The very Western (North American?) habit of prooftexting as to whether something is 'good' or 'right' or not by turning to some reference in the good book and using that to underscore God's alleged views regarding the issue of the day is, to my mind, often an abuse of the Bible. It could even be considered a light form of idolatry-- re-making God in man's image. No, Mabel, the book of Habakuk will not inspire you to know if carrot cake is the right item for the church bake sale or not.

And, as many know, by treating the Bible in this piecemeal, de-contextualized, read-what-I-want-to-read fashion it is easy to find passages that seem to contradict other passages. This is because the Bible was never meant to be a moral rule book. It certainly deals with themes of morality and sin (and much more so than sins- plural) but much more in a holistic sense than a list of, say, swimming pool regulations. It is supposed to be after all, God's Word (singular) not God's words (which also raises some interesting analyses regarding the relevance of the whole 'inerrancy' argument-- but which I won't get into here).

Yes, it is a narrative-- but is it 'historical?'

So the Bible is, first and foremost, a narrative (although yes, other genres-- such as the aesthetic song-poem of Song of Solomon make appearances-- so the reader does have to make a few schematic shifts). It is a narrative about God's interaction with his creation-- the breakup and reconciliation between God and mankind (God's people). This also raises the importance of intensive reading themes such as audience, idiom, and intention. If, for example, the idiom and intention of the Bible, or of a particular section, was not to be literal then treating it as so would, for the believer, be an inaccurate or even abusive approach to God's Word.

And, is it historical? It depends what you mean by history. Certainly the Bible refers to times, events, people and places that are real and does thus emphatically not take place in a Harry Potter-esque fantasy realm or some nether-bode of the Greek or Hindu Gods. Many of the references do correspond to what we know with certainty about history and geography. However, if you think of history of meaning, bluntly, a factual report of exactly what happened-- the truth and nothing but the objective truth etc. etc. Joe Friday School of Discourse model, then in fact almost nothing in the subject of history as a humanities discipline would meet the criterion, nor would the Bible. The bigger question is, does the Bible actually intend to be 'historical' in this sense?

Can you read a stained glass window? Can Walter?

In fact, the Bible begs to be read more with an understanding and appreciation of the development and realization of certain key theological themes (the lamb, kingship, purity, sin etc.) in tow-- much like a good movie or piece of music develops key themes, but often in a subtle or indirect manner, so as to have a more profound effect upon the viewer or listener. This can be difficult for modern readers much as 'reading' the stained glass windows of a great European cathedral is nearly impossible for most modern folks. We are, in this sense, illiterate. It could be said that, in a way, the Bible was not really written for Walter Steamkettle of Ames, Iowa (and his lovely wife Buelah).

On the other hand, even the modern, Western reader knows that Jesus' parables are stories, that they are fiction used to make a point. We know that Revelations is an allegory. We adopt those reading schemas for such passages because they are presented according to that idiom. We don't take the parables 'literally'. The big question then is whether or not this applies to other aspects of reading the Bible too, such as the creation story (I say, 'yes'-- the Jewish idiom of that time regarding a 'day-- as just one example--' is far, far removed from the motifs of twenty-first century Western legal speech or television reportage).

...not concerned with objective 'accuracy'

In this sense the Bible as a whole is not really concerned with providing detailed, objective 'accuracy'. In terms of providing the narrative (and the genre of the Bible is almost completely narrative) accuracy is subsumed by the need to make a theological point-- one that would not be lost on its original intended (Jewish in the OT) audience.

The genealogies are a good example. You might well ask, "Why are these boring lists even there?" The point is to establish the kingship lineage of the Messiah, Jesus. If you try to read it as a standard, modern, family-tree genealogy it doesn't make logical sense-- both in terms of the various who-begat-who scenarios or in terms of historical time frames. But again, that was never the point-- and the originally intended readership would have understood this. A modern, Western legalistic-based society doesn't.

Synoptic inconsistencies- not a problem

This is also evident in the famous so-called 'synoptic problem'. What is the synoptic problem? The problem actually refers to questions regarding the development of the Gospel texts but what I'd like to focus upon here are the alleged inconsistencies found between the first three (synopctic) gospel testimonies-- recounting the life of Christ. Now, if this really was a problem, the Nicean Council, and other early councils involved in the establishment of the Biblical canon would certainly have noted these apparent inconsistencies and alleged contradictions-- if they were modern lawyer-types they would have done their best to smooth out or otherwise harmonize all the details. After all, we're talking about people who knew every jot and tittle of scripture, people who scrupulously studied every minute detail.

But they didn't-- because that was never the point of the Gospels, the writers of which were concerned with different themes and angles from a theological perspective (read: different emphases). It is only 'the point' if your schema for understanding the notion of truthfulness is based upon that of alibis procured from suspects in a crime-- if they aren't consistent then, yes, someone's story is fishy. But in fact the Bible is not concerned with getting all the time, place and word details exact. It is more interesting in telling the story to make a theological point-- which was how it would be read at that time and place. The issue of complete and full accuracy is moot.

This also explains why the Gnostic Gospels and other texts were never accepted into the (standard) Biblical canon. Theologically they don't cohere. It's like having a tuba player in a string quartet. It's similar to the Halloween Simpsons episodes, where the rules of Springfield animation are broken (but at least the Simpsons' audience understand this once-a-year-we-make-an-exception idiom).

The Bible: A movie trailer

Most people would also tell you that, based on the Bible, Christianity presents a model in which good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell. This popular reduction is intriguing because most of the Bible in fact presents something quite different. If the story were to be written as a movie-of-the-week trailer it would probably read something like this:

God (Morgan Freeman) makes mankind, a perfect creation, in God's image but mankind, using free will, rebels against God. This state (sin, played by Justin Bieber) becomes the cause of man's distancing from God and the source of all man's troubles on earth. Mankind tries to make his way back into God's good graces through acts of goodness and sacrifice but stained by that original rebellious act, mankind always falls short. Therefore, it is up to God to reconcile the relationship, which God does by making himself into a human (Jesus-- played by Johnny Depp) who becomes the sufficient sacrifice for all mankind (since he is not tainted by sin) through being killed, and thereby ultimately transgressing death, man's usual fate. Through this act, mankind is now reconciled to God, since faith in this man-God Jesus, whose act of sacrifice opened the door to all mankind.
P.S. No, I'm not going to explain the Holy Trinity.

It actually sounds like a decent science-fiction flick--- and I don't mean that in a derisive sense at all. All the meaningful human themes are there and on a grand, cosmic scale. It is actually very deep and complex yet something that connects to the human condition of all people.

Personally, I gave up on professional Christianity a while ago because there was so much in its modern manifestations and practices that was at odds with my... well, my spirit. But I still retain a sense of the mystical, the spirituality of things, and a lasting sense that behind this confusing, exasperating book-- there is something real and profound (although it would be a lot easier for me psychologically if I believed that life and mankind was just physics and chemistry).

Go ahead and ask me your theological questions and I'll do my best to answer-- as someone who has struggled with the big book both spiritually and analytically. And next week I'll be back on track talking about the ESL classroom again.

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June 05, 2012

My how different you look! 15 years of university changes

As the old saying goes, "If you turn a corner slowly enough it ceases to be a corner". Actually, that's not an old saying. I just made it up but it makes me feel clever and it is appropriate for today's entry so there you go.

This year marks my fifteenth teaching at a university in Japan. Having kept the same office on the same campus and using many of the same classrooms for all of that time, on a day-to-day basis it appears that not too much has changed. But if I was to enter into a time warp and go back fifteen years, I'm sure that I'd notice how much-- besides the inevitable construction of new buildings and parking lots-- has been altered.

More social support networks

The first would be social support networks. Now, there is a campus ombudsman and a women's support center, both with full-time staff and both in regular contact with teachers, administrators and committees about protocols, procedures, and sometimes, personal issues. There are now very clear, well-supported avenues one can take in regard to power harassment, sexual harassment, academic harassment, and even alcohol harassment. This, in turn, has forced potential violators to consider their actions as highly visible campaigns are carried out to discourage them and inform victims of possible recourses of action.

Unfortunately, this has also lead to more spurious claims of harassment, such as against a professor for warning a student about slovenly work and possibly failing a class, or a section manager asking an underling to carry out some standard procedure. Fatuous claims are, unfortunately, the reverse side of the otherwise healthy open-avenues-for-redress coin.

Newly forbidden activities

Smoking has pretty much gone the way of the leisure suit and the mullet. Fifteen years ago students smoked right outside the classroom, and teachers, researchers and office workers did so in their offices or hallways. It looked like a scene from Mad Men on occasion. Now, except for a small, hidden outdoors gazebo purposely-built, smoking on campus is utterly kinshi!

Even the notorious campus festival pre-party has been toned down. I'd say this was inevitable because it really couldn't have been 'toned up'. I'm no shrinking violet, but even I was shocked when I witnessed my first zenya-sai. I know that medical students worldwide are renowned for letting off steam but I had no idea that anyone would do that on a stage with a bucket of nattou, a flower arrangement, and a pair of Speedos. How they got the octopus on the lighting rig I'll never know. It's far more sedate now (a surprising number of OBs and OGs think the current students are a buncha wimps) and senior students now patrol the campus pot-fest for unruly behavior or to thwart drunk driving. (It is amazing to what degree, both positive and negative, the influence of seniors can weight upon the behavior of the juniors).


The semi-independent status provided to national universities from the Ministry of Education, Textiles, Aquarium Maintenance, and Banjo Appreciation (or whatever it's called now) has had a palpable effect too. The first involves the need to raise funds for research. The importance of applying for, and hopefully, receiving, Scientific In-Aid grants has increased exponentially. The ability to gain research funding probably trumps pure educational skill in terms of value to the university. That might sound facetious, but it does mean that you can't afford to not be involved in research-- that universities are seen as research institutions as much as they are educational.

Transparency and full accountability has become a major issue. The requirement for full documentation, with all T's crossed and I's dotted for expenses, travel, and research activities, has probably increased everybody's paper-workload by about 20% but, as a public institution this is paramount. But even things like Valentine's gifts from students or o-miyage for fellow staff have become frowned upon for fear of being seen as an impropriety-- as a type of bribe. Visits to teacher offices by students are also now supposed to be notated-- day, time, purpose etc.-- in order to ward of possible subsequent claims. Unfortunately, this makes teacher-student relations less fraternal, less collegial.

(addition) Connected to this is a greater cognizance of privacy issues. Teachers used to be issued a booklet containing all student contact details, backgrounds etc., which I found very helpful. But now, due to privacy concerns, a request for any information must go through the Student Affairs Division. The same is true for using any existing patient information as classroom materials for students. It has to be scrubbed down and sterilized. The irony of course is that the new concern for privacy goes hand in hand with the call for transparency and openness.

Contracts and the DATABASE

Contracts have changed too. Tenure, in the old-fashioned sense, no longer really exists in national universities. Permanent employees instead are issued multiple renewable contacts. This wards off the possibility of maintaining academic deadwood, since one has to maintain one's database score. Thankfully, the old Gaikokujin Kyoushi positions of the late twentieth century have been laid to rest. And the ephemeral nature of research budgets means that part-time staff live a precarious existence-- roles and some income dependent upon whether the research proposal is passed or not.

Speaking of the database (which perhaps should be written in caps as: DATABASE) this incredibly complex item has become ubiquitous in recent years. Managing this ungainly collection of performance data (cynics might even say 'manipulating' it) is a necessary and time-consuming skill that never used to carry much import at all. Now, you might think that a database is (and please excuse the dense, technical terminology that follows) a 'base' of information from which specific 'data' can be collected. But you'd be wrong. When some committee or department or research project wants certain pertinent data from you they can't go to the DATABASE. That's because the DATABASE is an evaluative tool and therefore is not accessible to all and sundry (especially sundry). The committee or department instead has to make their own data form from which you input all your stuff once again-- except now the categories and details overlap or are somehow different, which means that a simple cut 'n paste won't (pun intended) cut it.

A drop in academic skill and achievement?

Have the students themselves changed? Demographic changes mean that competition for national university seats has decreased and thus cumulative admission scores are on average slightly lower than before-- especially at the lower end of the entry scale. However, I haven't really noticed this effect qualitatively upon the English skills of the incoming en'eki (straight from high school) students. What I do notice though is fewer mature students than in the past-- who often had real-world English experience, not to mention general academic and social maturity.

My students still don't have potential employment issues-- the dreary employment climate has had little to no effect. As medical students they know that their skills and qualifications are in demand so there is no extrinsic pressure to perform well as students merely for employment's sake. And, thankfully, we don't actually have to engage in song-and-dance recruitment tactics. Yet.

The M-F medical student ratio has remained about the same-- about 60-50 in favour of the males (110 students are admitted every year). But there has been a recent campaign to get them to stay in Miyazaki after graduating since we were losing large numbers to the bigger burghs for quite a while or enticing Miyazaki residents who studied other subjects at elite universities like Todai to return to Miyazaki and take up medicine. This has meant a more localized student body too-- as well as more students gaining entry based upon recommendations (such students tend to populate either the very upper or lowest tiers).

Less bureaucratic tooth-sucking

The university has become actively international. There is a pretty constant influx of students and researchers from sister universities in other Asian countries, international health care organizations, more visiting experts from abroad, and more opportunities for our students to pursue health care activities abroad. International contacts and relations produce less bureaucratic procedural tooth-sucking than they did fifteen years previous.

This openness has extended to on-campus commercial activity too (although this could still stand improving). When I started, there was one bookstore and food supplier that had a monopoly on our book-buying and on-campus eating choices. Now, local entrepreneurs are welcome (as long as they follow the rules) and we can buy our books from whoever we damn well please-- and with much, much less of a mark-up.

Of course in writing this I run the risk of unfairly applying my own university's situation to the bigger Japan picture. After all, one major development arising out of the new semi-independence scheme is that individual universities can be more flexible and idiosyncratic in their choices, that fewer and fewer general guidelines are passed down from Monkasho. So I ask you-- have you noticed similar-- or different-- changes at your own?

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April 25, 2014

Gettin' yer kids into college- Japanese university version

Before I launch into today’s topic, I want to (ab)use this platform to selfishly shill...
my epoch-defining novel ‘The Little Suicides’.
It’s available at and at (you can preview the opening few pages there). The story is set largely in Japan and the Philippines, and although rather ‘gritty’ in places (it’s classified as mystery/adventure), it should appeal to expats based in Asia, or anyone who likes travel/mystery fiction. You can also catch a few Japan-based excerpts here —although I admit it’s not the most gripping part of the book.

Now, onto the real blog stuff…

Years ago I was an idealistic father. I told myself that I would never succumb to the educational rat race, that I would eschew campaigning long and hard to get my children into the best universities. My kids, I told myself, would follow the educational paths that they had forged by themselves, one that was built on their own true passions and interests in learning. But then, last year, my son entered his third year of high school in Japan-- university prep time—and all my idealism spiraled out our study room window.

To be fair, I had to some extent, misjudged entrance exam hell in my younger, more naïve days, in Japan. I had mentally reduced the university entry process in Japan to something akin to the following:
1. High school teachers cram a bunch of facts into your head for memorization.
2. You take the national center exam and regurgitate this stuff.
3. You enter the highest rank of university your score allows you to.
4. You join a company.

The real process, especially these days, is much more complex and nuanced than that (and the tests are also usually more skills-based too). Since I know that many readers have children approaching the same milestone age, I thought this would be an opportune time, as a now-test-experienced father, to identify some of the signposts and alternative pathways along Japan’s university entrance route.

1. There are many ways to enter a given Japanese university

It’s not just a Center exam + University Exam = total score formula. It can vary incredibly, and once your spawn has identified a university he or she is targeting, it is absolutely indispensible to collect all information on potential means of entry.

The cleanest, smoothest, least taxing way is via recommendation. This avoids all the drawn out testing business (and might also mean that your child does little or nothing during their last 4 or 5 months of high school because they’re already ‘in’ university). Almost all universities have some recommendation allotment. The process starts early, often soon after summer. Recommendations will typically involve an interview on the campus, a number of high school documents attesting to the special skill or circumstance of the student (prepped by the home room teacher), and perhaps, a short one-or-two subject test. Many private universities in particular will have more than one recommendation session.

Many private unis also are connected to feeder high schools. Students graduating from such high schools (Nihon Univ.—or Nichidai as it is commonly known-- is the largest example) are often prioritized for uni entry in those schools' recommendation systems (but not on the so-called ‘ippan’, or general, exam-based entry).

2. Get detailed information from the prospective unis and study them thoroughly!

All universities have glossy brochures espousing their virtues, but also containing a fair bit of helpful data regarding entrance processes. Obviously, online websites will provide even more. Commercial books explaining how to get into this or that university, including previous entrance exams and test-taking tips for any and all unis, are readily available. This stuff is pretty much indispensable for knowing procedures, dates, and entry protocols. If you’re not a proficient Japanese readers you’ll need help (your spouse?). Your kid can read it, sure, but 17 year olds have the habit of glossing over important details…

Many universities hold open campus sessions during the year. If it is a potential choice for your little one, pay a visit, if only to find out whether it lives up to glossy, brochure standards or not. Check out the neighborhood too for transport, apartment/dorm, and shopping options. A pretty, spic and span university building plonked down in the middle of Podunk, Shimane Prefecture (sorry, Shimane-ites) might not look so appealing when you realize that its ten kilometers from anything resembling a restaurant or supermarket….

3. It’s not the university, it’s the faculty that matters!

Entrance standards and examinations differ by faculty. There is rarely a unified procedure for entering X university as a whole. It all depends upon which faculty your young-uns are applying for.

It generally works like this-- Masaki-kun wants to enter the Education Faculty at City University (unwisely, Masaki hopes to become a teacher). The requirements for entry will likely look something like:
A. 2 or 3 subjects from the Center Exam. For education faculties, typically 1 must be English, 1 must be Japanese. The third subject choice is optional (my boy chose World History). Engineering will be very, very different.

B. The faculty’s own, second-stage entrance exam, typically including both a ‘zenki’-first- and ‘kouki’- second exam, the latter allowing for candidates who couldn’t attend the first exam due to scheduling conflicts.

C. A personal interview (sometimes in English).

But in fact some faculties may require NO Center Exam results, or only one (core) subject. It may specify exactly which Center subjects will be considered. This allows, for example, math-phobics, to apply to a place where math is not part of the entry criteria.

This affects the content of the second-stage (local) exams too. Most will test candidates in only a few subjects (education will typically go for English and Japanese) so candidates should choose targets that match their strengths. Finding out which faculties require test results on which subjects is, again, absolutely indispensible in your child’s planning.

4. Utilize your kid’s home room teacher

High school teachers are not so much concerned with cramming data into students’ heads as they are making sure that the student enters the best university possible. Yes, it is a huge feather in a HS teacher’s cap (especially the home room teacher) if little Taku or Saya get into a name institution. This means that home room teachers regularly try to uncover students’ post-graduate goals. Based on the student’s aptitude and abilities, they will make suggestions regarding which schools the child has a legitimate shot at-- occasionally over-reaching in order to push their charges into preparing for the best possible outcome.

Other subject teachers will often be drafted in to give special, focused tuition to students who need to brush up on chosen test subjects. English teachers often help prepare individual students for English interviews. (My kid didn't go to a cram school, so I can't comment more on that aspect of uni preparation).

How do HS teachers and students know what unis they are likely to have a good shot of entering? Standardized mock tests are regularly given. Scores arising from these will indicate the student’s chances of making it into Prestigious University A or Less Prestigious University B based on these exam results (students will submit the names of the universities they are interested in entering in advance). If Saya-chan has a 60% chance of making into Waseda based on this mock exam, she can look at what her weak points were to raise her score in the future or she can settle her sights on a lower, but surer, target.

Typically, students will take 2 or 3 mock tests. The home room teacher will know the results and make recommendations for both application targets and study suggestions based upon these (again, other subject teachers will be drafted in to help students upgrade whatever subject needs a boost).

The home room teacher will generally be happy to discuss the likelihood of getting into a particular school with the parents. Most will be quite knowledgeable about entrance methods and means. Juku or yobiko (cram school) teachers will be absolute founts of knowledge on the same.

5. Public vs. private universities (aka ‘money’)

Public unis (especially national) are generally considered more prestigious in Japan, with a few notable exceptions. The big issue behind this is price. Typically, national unis cost about half of what private universities do (private are typically about 1,200,000 a year plus, public about 600,000 plus for the same). This makes competition for national schools fiercer and further bolsters reputations.

National unis engage in far fewer ‘sales campaigns’ and tend to have stricter, more limited entrance procedures (besides recommendations, the center exam plus second stage exam total is the norm). National unis will have a set, limited number of seats available. Private unis don’t. Private unis will often recruit by offering entrance exams in various parts of the country, and may accept numbers over the limit they advertise.

Parents should be on close lookout for scholarships from each prospective university. Being from X prefecture may garner a candidate 100,000 yen, hardship cases (single-parent households etc.) might get up to 50% reduction on tuition, certain special recommendations achieved might merit other monetary awards. Check scholarship pages (online) very closely!

6. The second (and third) choice factor

Early on (summer in the 3rd year of High School) your offspring should have three or four potential uni targets prioritized. They should never put all their entry eggs into one acceptance basket!

Timing the recommendation test/personal interviews and second-stage tests so that Johnny Jukensei can attend all four can be a difficult to achieve, but worthy, task. Many unis will held exams or interviews at the same time so staggering one’s choices to meet these schedules is essential (see zenki and kouki exams above).

Here’s where I can use my son’s experience as an example.

When university choices started becoming a factor in his teenaged brain he listed five universities and two faculties (English studies, International studies) he wanted to aim for.
These included:
A. Prestigious University with a lower chance of entry
B. HS affiliated, but lesser, university with an almost certain chance of entry
C. Two good, but lesser-than-A, universities
D. A local university (as a final fail-safe resort)
All were private (‘ouch’ comes a voice from deep in my pocket) universities.

Unfortunately, the preferred recommendation interviews and small ‘tests’ for both A and B occurred on the same day. My son, bless him, chose to take the difficult-to-enter A route instead of almost-certain B. He didn't get selected (the success rate was about 10%). This meant that any eventual fall back onto choice B would have to come from the so-called ‘ippan’ (regular) process (center test plus 2nd stage exam). Instead, my son set his sights on the two C choices.

He took the Center Exam (English, Japanese, and World History only, as it was these scores that would be the factors for entry here on in).

He then took the entrance exams for both C schools, including separate tests for two different faculties at one of them. These exams were held in Kyushu, even though the universities themselves are located elsewhere. (*Note that taking all these tests and interviews costs money. It is a revenue generator for thee universities.)

He passed all three (*the examinee numbers of the candidate are posted on the university website about 3 to 5 days post-test). This now meant choosing which one to accept. You have only about 7-10 days to send in a confirmation paper and make a small non-refundable down payment. My son chose the International Studies at one of the C schools. But wait...

He then found out from his HS home-room teacher that Prestigious University A was also offering some further, second stage, recommendation entries into their English studies faculty, based on the Center exam score and an extended English interview—but these were to be held (with only a small percentage of candidates succeeding again) after the closing date for papers and down payment had to be sent to university C.

So, we sent the papers and the $ to university C while still deciding to have him try for a last-ditch spot in Prestigious U. (yes, the travel expenses to attend these things do start to add up). Taking the Prestigious U’s final interview also meant he had to forego some scholarship applications for university C, which contained the caveat that the student must not be applying to any other university.

In the end...

My son didn’t make it into Prestigious U. (He wants to try again as a transfer student next year or, perhaps, the year after that). He entered university C, in the faculty of international studies. He was a bit downcast at first, not having hit the uni jackpot, but seems to have since adjusted well to his lot.

This long, arduous process took a bit of an emotional, as well as a financial, toll on both his mother and I. We were cheering with him in his efforts to go to his first choice school and keenly felt his sorrow when he missed. There was tension at times, but we all learned a lot in the process. I’ll be sure to utilize this experience when my daughter gets there in another twelve years.

Questions and comments regarding your own experience with your children in the Japanese entrance exam system are welcome.

I’ll be taking a break from posting entries on this website for awhile hereafter. Thanks to all readers and supporters who have followed the Uni-files thus far.

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